Medieval Madness

On the Stage

Gargantua Adapted from the book by Francois Rabelais Directed by Andrew Watson At various house courtyards Through May 7

NOW THAT a weekend of parties and procrastination is over, the time has come to sit back, relax and enjoy a free ride through the life and times of Gargantua, the great and mighty giant of Francois Rabelais' imagination.

Brought to life in an adaptation written and directed by Andrew Watson and performed by the Harvard Medieval Players (as the motley and talented troupe of actors is called), this production wanders from house to house, providing the perfect accompaniment to a reading-period dinner. It's mindless and meaningless, brilliant and bawdy--a perfect way to forget papers and books from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

Gargantua defies analysis because it has no plot, no point and, as the narrator (Nick Davis) is careful to point out at the end of the play, no moral. It's good; it's scurillous; it's even sacrilegious. As the players tell the audience during the show's denouement--if you could call it that--the play is no more than "a healthy dose of sex and violence--in church, no less."

THE BEST THING that I can do here is to pile on the kudos and to try to explain Gargantua to the curious and the hyperanalytical. The script is based on Pantagruel, a book written by Rabelais in 1532, and its subsequent prequel, Gargantua, written in 1534. Watson, a Medieval History and Literature concentrator, turned it into a script with a little help from his tutor.

The play is performed in Camadia form, which means--if the production itself is any indication--that it is played outdoors, is full of improvisation and divergence from the script, and uses only 12 players to play 61 different parts. There is no backstage, and the single-layer costumes are simply thrown over the players' standard attire of sweat pants, sneakers and colorful tunics.

A built-in function of the form is that the audience knows that it is watching a play and no suspended disbelief is called for. At one point, one of the players reminds the viewers that the play would be much more enjoyable if we could just imagine Gargantua (Kris Kobach) to be about 30 or 40 feet taller. This is not theater as real life or theater as social statement, it's just theater as theater.

WHICH IS why our disbelief does manage to be suspended. All the characters in the script are caricatures and all the players in the play are characters. In a production like Gargantua, it's of paramount importance that the actors seem like they're having a good time so that the audience can't helped being sucked into the fun. For this feat, the entire company deserves lavish praise.

It's a well-chosen cast of kings, queens, giants, cuckolded husbands, adulterous wives, lecherous womanizers, sexy nuns, chivalrous soldiers and all sorts of other stock Medieval types. Everyone in this play is truly outstanding, and Watson himself, as the director, must be credited with inciting the histrionics and natural energy necessary to hold the audience members' attention as they sit sipping coffee, contemplating a 10-page paper or chatting with their dining companion.

And Gargantua is the perfect thing to see while talking to a friend you haven't seen since you last sat down before your Macintosh or last entered Lamont, because even if you miss a minute or two, it doesn't matter. There's no plot--there is merely a series of sub-plots that lampoon Medieval values with some interesting references to modern times.

If you walk in a half-hour late, you'll have no trouble following it, and if you walk out--or rather, walk in--a half-hour early--which you won't want to do--no one will think you're rude because no one cares, because it's in a courtyard and no one will notice.